Despite the decline of the USSR, corruption remains rampant in many rural areas of Russia, as depicted in Andrey Zvyagintsev’s 2014 film, “Leviathan.”
“Leviathan” focuses on a jobless fisherman, Nikolai (Aleksei Serebryakov)—or Kolya for short—in the isolated northern town of Pribrezhnyy.
Kolya tries to fight against the antagonistic mayor, Vadim (Roman Madyanov), from taking his property for personal use at a ridiculously cheap price, while Kolya’s family is torn apart by their misery.
Though the plot’s extreme dourness is reminiscent of any Romantic Russian fantasy, the film’s events are made plausible by the actors’ expertly realistic portrayals, which are not even lost through English subtitles.
Serebryakov, one of Russia’s most popular actors, masterfully plays the role of a man who loses everything he knows, yet Madyanov’s performance as the comically self-centered mayor arguably comprises the film’s best performance.
Even more convincing is how the actors seamlessly incorporate into their personas the characteristic habits of those living in Russia’s extreme north: Hundreds of cups of vodka are consumed throughout the movie, including by Kolya’s teenage delinquent son Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev), and there is just as much swearing and a general affinity for shooting.
These idiosyncrasies are brought to light in the scene where Kolya’s family and others drive out to a desolate location to celebrate a friend’s birthday—by getting fabulously drunk, having target practice with portraits of past Russian leaders and then driving home.
As much as director Zvyagintsev intends “Leviathan” not to be a political statement—he claims in The Guardian that “[his] goal was certainly not to confront power”—showing people shooting at pictures of Russian leaders, hanging a picture of Putin in Vadim’s office and incorporating strong patriotic themes delve the film into controversial political territory.
Not only is the title of “Leviathan” eponymous with Thomas Hobbes’ Enlightenment law book, but it is also in reference to the biblical sea monster, in line with the film’s strong Russian Orthodox symbolism: Not only is the plot based off the tale of Job, but Vadim hypocritically consults his personal minister on every issue and even builds a church on the property he takes from Kolya.
Though music is purposely sparse throughout the movie, a haunting score from Philip Glass perfectly complements the film’s atmosphere.
“Leviathan”—currently playing at Osio Cinemas—is clearly a foreign masterpiece on the many levels of symbolism, political commentary, social allegory and convincing acting that it exhibits. It is a true eye-opener into the condition of modern Russia.